Let’s go ahead and get the most obvious thing out of the way. No, North Carolina is not a favorite to make the Final Four. But could they get there? Absolutely. They have all the talent and tools to make a deep March run- defensive intensity, a wide rebounding margin, a star point guard, excellent bench play. Add a Hall of Fame coach to that list and you’ve got a pretty sure shot, right? The problem is, that the Tar Heels rarely exhibit all of these qualities at one time. This is the same team that lost to UAB (which finished with a losing record in lowly C-USA) and beat then #1 Michigan State (many media member’s pick to win it all) in the same WEEK. You never know what you’re going to get when they step on the court. A 12-game winning streak just became a 2-game losing streak courtesy of Duke and Pittsburgh, two teams which North Carolina had already beaten earlier in the season. So why do I think they still have a chance?
Because the Tar Heels always seem to show up when it matters most.
Let’s not pretend that they don’t know how important these next six potential games are. While the Tar Heels have a young team and lost in the Round of 32 (to Kansas, who else?) last year, they were coming off of two trips to the Elite Eight before that (2011 and 2012 losses to Kentucky and Kansas respectively). Guys like James Michael McAdoo and Leslie McDonald have been part of successful tournament teams in the past and this year might just have been Roy Williams’ best coaching job yet. His team overcame a slow start, inconsistent play and the unexpected loss of PJ Hairston to put together 23 wins. He’ll have his team ready on Friday.
That’s not to say that the Tar Heels can walk to the championship if they play their best. There are a lot of great teams in their region. Here are four of the biggest threats to their quest for a sixth NCAA Championship (they also were awarded the championship by the Helms Athletic Foundation for their undefeated season in 1924).
We all know about Virginia, the fourth #1 seed and ACC Tournament and Regular Season Champion. But North Carolina wouldn’t have to face them until the Elite Eight if both teams made it that far (the tournament committee tries to avoid rematches for as long as they can, separating conference teams). In the only previous meeting this season, the Cavaliers destroyed the Heels, beating them 76-61 in Charlottesville, leaving North Carolina 1-4 in conference before their 12-game winning streak. If these two teams end up meeting, I think it will be much closer than the first time. Both groups have definitely improved, and while Virginia has the tempo advantage that they exercised the first time, at least the Cavaliers would be a known quantity for Roy Williams. Sure, they’d prepare just like they would for any other team, but they know what to expect. They can look back at the game tape from earlier this year and make the appropriate adjustments. This would be a great match-up.
Assuming UNC can get through Providence and Iowa State can beat NC Central (neither of which is a guarantee- NC Central beat surging NC State earlier this year and Providence has a decent resume), this is the match-up to watch. Iowa State is always a solid team and this year is no exception. With a 26-7 record overall, and a 11-7 record in the Big 12 (which many people consider to be the best league this year), the Cyclones come into the tournament with 8 wins over teams that were ranked at the time, the most recent, over #10 Kansas. They’re first in the country in assists per game and sixth in points per game with 82.9 points a game. While North Carolina usually has a ppg average in the 80s, this year, they are only averaging 76.3ppg. The disparity isn’t huge, but it could be a factor. But Marcus Paige is the real difference maker here. As he has been the Tar Heels’ most consistent threat all season, a potential match-up with the Cyclones would create some interesting drama- Paige’s hometown, Marion, IA, is less than 2 hours away from the Iowa State campus.
By now, we’ve heard all the usual arguments- Michigan State was seeded too low, they have Tom Izzo, you can’t count them out, they’re healthy now, etc. All of those things will definitely be a factor. The Spartans really do have a great shot of winning it all like many people are predicting. But like Virginia, the Tar Heels have played Michigan State before. And unlike Virginia, the Tar Heels beat the Spartans, 79-65 in a meeting earlier this year in East Lansing. Again, that’s the biggest factor- they’re known quantities to each other. If these two teams meet, will Michigan State be out for revenge and prevail? Or will the Tar Heels continue their stunning streak of wins against the Spartans? You can’t count out series history. Clemson has never beaten UNC at home. Kansas has a prolonged tournament win streak against North Carolina since Roy Williams took over. It shouldn’t make a difference, but it almost always does.
Recent Series History
2013- 79-65 WIN
2011- 67-55 WIN
2009- 89-72 WIN (National Championship)
89-82 WIN (Aircraft Carrier)
2008- 98-63 WIN
2007- 81-67 WIN (Second Round)
2005- 87-71 WIN (Final Four)
The Wildcats, the East Region’s #2 seed are coming off of an impressive season in the new-look Big East (28-4 overall, 16-2 conference). Unlike the Tar Heels, they’ve taken care of business, beating the teams that they should have, and losing to ones that aren’t that big of a surprise or completely concerning (Syracuse, Creighton). That is, except for their Big East Tournament loss to lowly Seton Hall. While those who have followed the Tournament expect the unexpected, it was surprising to see the Wildcats bow out early to a woefully average Pirates team. Much like North Carolina, Villanova has to prove that their season shouldn’t be defined by their recent loss, or losses, but by their complete body of work.
These are just a few of the top teams in the East Region, not ALL of the top threats. Because it’s the NCAA Tournament, you never really know what will happen. Will UNC play to its potential and make a deep March run? Or will Delaware shock the world and knock out the Spartans in Game 1? Time will tell, and no matter what happens, I can’t wait to watch.